Although industrial manufacturing has undergone tremendous change and technological improvements in the last five years, there are still many characteristics that can be further improved. The production floor of the manufacturing plant is the heart and soul of productivity. It is a place of creation.
Recently, the media covering industry has focused on the most glamorous topics related to the manufacturing plant. Many pieces have been written on industry 4.0, the Internet of things, 3D printing, the Cloud, and Big Data. Currently, these are the topics of most significant interest to manufacturing companies and the people that lead them. As a result of this set of circumstances, shop floor activities occupy a lower position on manufacturing executives’ priority list. Hence, manufacturing plant managers may not detect silent issues like inventory inaccuracies or idle equipment until an incident affects a customer. When this happens, lesser-considered topics like these come to the fore.
Ignoring shop floor processes of significant importance to a manufacturing plant is a grave mistake. Activities that may not seem serious, like unexplained fluctuations in labor costs, can quickly escalate into serious problems that affect things like growth, profits, and cycles. They also affect productivity in many departments.
It is an excellent practice to take a regular close look at the internal processes of scheduling, planning, material handling, inventory, logistics, and attendance and labor tracking. These areas are commonly the primary source of most problems in the manufacturing plant.
Limited visibility in the manufacturing plant
A manufacturing company has many options for managing the shop floor, from tools within an ERP system (Enterprise Resource Planning ), systems such as MES (Manufacturing Execution System ), specific solutions for inventory or freight management, and areas with specialized needs. Due to the number of data silos in non-integrated systems, visibility into the end-to-end operation of the manufacturing plant can be limited. This lack of visibility makes it difficult to piece together fragmented reports without integration and real-time visibility into a production status version. Being able to point out errors or inefficiencies may be entirely impossible.
Managers may have a vague sense that productivity isn’t where it should be. There may be the observation that delays are getting beyond their usual frequency, and something needs to be done. But what? Perhaps occasional communication gaps delay orders. Maybe machines are sitting idle while shipments of raw materials are ready for shipment, perhaps needed components are not in stock, or not received, or even worse, not ordered. These types of bumps in the productive activities of the manufacturing plant may seem ordinary and are often difficult to avoid in complex manufacturing.
The truth is that well-performing manufacturing plants have eliminated these mistakes. They know that even the slightest interruption in production cycles means an unwanted negative impact on their profitability. Each delay means an expense of resources and risks of not being able to make deliveries to customers on time. This can be a state of affairs from which the company finds it challenging to recover.
Every company involved in manufacturing knows that recruiting and retaining qualified workers is one of its priorities. The lack of skilled labor is exacerbated when the retiring generation leaves gaps that companies must fill. However, idle staff can be seen on the shop floor in many manufacturing plants. Production teams must sometimes wait for product configuration specifications or customer confirmation on a design change. Engineers may have tasks such as simple data entry or product configuration roles, and major design innovations often must wait for when there is time.
Understanding labor costs and inefficiencies is a complex challenge for some manufacturing companies. Automation alleviates many of the problems. The question is, which tasks to automate and which should be done with workers with the right skills? The process of improving labor utilization starts with understanding the current circumstances. Many manufacturing companies don’t have visibility into the workforce and the plant floor. They do not know how labor relates to individual orders. Unable to track labor, plant, warehouse, and ship, the manager of a manufacturing plant sometimes makes the mistake of guessing the cost of operating each particular machine and function. This means invoicing and quoting clients’ fees that are too much or not enough. This complication is relatively easy to solve since there is software for labor tracking. Using tools such as these managers of a manufacturing plant can improve the monitoring of the different teams, the individuals, and the company’s specific activities.
Tracking material costs is another basic shop floor function that should not be overlooked. Design engineers can specify materials and components and then project costs in the early stages of product planning and costing exercises. However, hidden materials can be forgotten in some cases, driving up costs and not being updated as processes evolve. Running production equipment means incurring costs that include preventive maintenance and the use of materials. Rejected units that fail quality control also incur a cost. These costs are burdensome for manufacturing plants to track unless they acquire and implement the right tools.
The material tracking feature allows manufacturing companies to monitor the volume of products in production and see anomalies. For example, why did one of the shifts use twice as much adhesive on packaging as the previous shift? Why does machine B has more discarded electronic components? Why did all three shifts have a 10% increase in ready material that had to be recycled? These are the types of questions that Manufacturing managers can answer with continuous monitoring tools. Managers can watch, wonder, or speculate without the right software. Unfortunately, this approach does not use a reliable system for making tough decisions like replacing staff or shutting down production lines for maintenance.
An automation solution chosen by a manufacturing plant must at the very least provide plant operators with the right information at the right time to increase productivity. If plant operators are constantly looking for updates on their tasks or supervisors don’t have clear visibility into team activities, productivity can take a severe hit. When the plant floor becomes a digital hub, managers can control workflows and maintain streamlined processes. When workflows are monitored and tracked through an integrated IT solution, managers often see improvements in speed and productivity. By linking the shop floor with the digital hub (ERP), managers can see the relationship, the context, and the multiple systems that must be in tune to achieve two critical goals: increased profits and increased customer satisfaction.
Advanced shop floor solutions allow manufacturing companies to automate and optimize many manufacturing processes, connecting machines and controlling processes. Automation can automatically create event triggers and workflows to assign steps in the production cycle. Doing so eliminates the need for a human intervention to make decisions. For example, the company can monitor quality metrics during the production process (input of raw material, work in progress, to completion) to remove non-conforming components, rather than waiting until final inspection. The excess of quality failures triggers a complete quality audit.
Tracking features can also track material consumption and scrap rates at the machine operation level. A sound system is in place when any anomaly can trigger more reports and inspections.
Quality in the Manufacturing Plant
Automating key activities helps ensure compliance with corporate mandates and quality expectations. For example, product inspections can be automated and controlled with more accurate and reliable sensors than human inspections. Sensors can detect microscopic imperfections and check the weight, volume, size, and production density in fractions of seconds. By automating control points that comply with specifications, manufacturing plants can increase operational efficiency by promptly improving the execution of production plans. The result of this is greater customer satisfaction and profitability, which are the ultimate goals of every company.
Protecting the quality and on-time delivery of products helps ensure brand protection. Even with multiple branches and sourcing from abroad, the manufacturing company can rely on consistent, on-spec production throughout its production.
To stay competitive in a global economy, it is vital for organizations to continually assess their plant processes and look for opportunities for improvement. Modern software solutions enhance capability and give manufacturing companies a new vision to generate new profits and increase customer satisfaction.